1. Frontier Ruckus - Deadmalls and Nightfalls
So this is it, our favorite album of 2010. Since it's July release I've kept coming back to this beautiful, affecting album by Michigan's Frontier Ruckus time and time again. On Deadmalls and Nightfalls Matthew Milia's songwriting is at the forefront as he eulogizes forgotten places, people and memories of a suburban wasteland. There's a certain nostalgia in abandoned stripmalls that I can relate to - maybe it's something about being a product of early-90s suburbia myself.
Milia masters the Dylanesque feat of cramming a seemingly impossible number of words into each song, while still making each one count. The words act not only as a vehicle for the stories that form the album's core, but in many cases act as an another instrument altogether, each syllable a note plucked from Matt Milia's quivering vocal chords; dancing with banjo strings, fighting for space alongside acoustic guitars.
Musically, the album is as rich as anything I've heard this year - a distinctly midwestern blend of folk, bluegrass and southwest horns. Banjo, trumpets, the occasional singing saw or fiddle, strummed and picked acoustic guitar and various percussion. You get the feeling that these songs were truly composed, not your average verse-chorus songwriting-by-numbers - tempos change mid-song, instruments make appearances then disappear; truly a complete, fully-realized piece of art. There were other albums that I loved this year, but none that spoke to me in quite the same way as Deadmalls and Nightfalls. I came back to it throughout the year in various moods and situations, and each time it gave me exactly what I was looking for, and often revealed something new.
2. Titus Andronicus - The Monitor
Titus Andronicus' 2009 debut The Airing of Grievances was a ragged album of Jersey bar-band-punk that only hinted at the potential they fully relized on The Monitor. I remember a fully intoxicated listening party the weekend after the album came out, blasting at full-volume as a small group of revelers sat around exchanging "whatthefuck" looks of amazement. The album's spot on this list was probably cemented that night, but this album reveals more and more over time. It is the definition of ambitious - a loose concept album based on the Civil War that quotes both Springsteen and Walt Whitman. It is epic - a punk album with 8 songs over 5 minutes long. And it works. It's a masterpiece of literary punk-rock that's neither pretentious nor naive.
3. The National - High Violet
The National are one of the most consistent bands in indie-rock today. While their early albums show flashes of brilliance but are somewhat inconsistent, they found their groove with 2006's Alligator and haven't looked back. 2007's Boxer topped many year-end lists, so the expectations were even higher for High Violet. It doesn't disappoint on any level as the band returns to the well of dark, boozy, often obtuse ruminations on love and relationships. The trademarks are there, moody ("Lemonworld", "Sorrow") pretty ("Runaway", "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks") and anthemic ("Bloodbuzz Ohio") and even though The National have done it well before, it just doesn't get old.
4. The Walkmen - Lisbon
As I wrote earlier in the year, The Walkmen have taken a strange path to becoming one of my favorite bands. For years I knew that they should be my favorite band, but for some reason I never really let myself fall in love with them. This was the year that changed. Truthfully, You & Me was the album that changed my mind, but Lisbon was the first time I embraced a Walkmen release as an event. The album does not disappoint. Where their earlier albums felt to me like New York City on a cold, windy, drunken night - this one feels warmer, sunnier, laid back. There is a comfort where there was once abrasion. "Juveniles", "Stranded", and "Lisbon" are among the most beautiful songs the band has recorded - this is the sound of a band that has found their place.
5. The Love Language - Libraries
I have a soft spot in my music that incorporates equal parts soul, early rock n' roll and garage rock. That pretty much defines The Love Language, and as you'd expect, they have been one of my favorite bands since their fantastic self-titled debut was released last year. Truth be told, though, I was a bit nervous about follow-up and Merge debut Libraries before it was released. Rumors had me worried that the band's sound would be sterilized - afterall, the lo-fi production was one of the previous albums' charms. No need to worry. Libraries sees Stuart McLamb and company clean up their sound without losing the ragged edge, and takes their garage-soul blend to epic new levels. To these ears, this is pretty much perfect music.
6. Josh Ritter - So Runs The World Away
Josh Ritter has already established himself as one of the most important songwriters making music today. Five albums in, one could forgive Josh Ritter if he were to play things safe, settle into a groove and coast. On the contrary, So Runs The World Away is full of risks. A song about the complicated relationship between a mummy and his archeologist/lover (in waltz time) could be a horrific disaster in lesser hands. Here it's beautiful and believable. "Another New World" is an epic tale of adventure and loss. A stunning piece of prose set to a sweet, soft tune. There are still the traditional folk moments you'd expect, but the willingness to take chances and the songwriting chops to pull them off put Josh Ritter head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries.
7. Spoon - Transference
Following an album like Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is no easy task, I would imagine. Rather than try to one-up the ragged pop and grand statements of their breakthrough, Spoon took a different route with Transference and delivered a more challenging record - one that hides its charms deeper, below the surface. Gone are the glockenspiels and horns - replaced with disorienting rythms and backwards tape-looped keysboards. It's like they took pop music and turned it upside down - still recognizable, but not the same. That isn't to say that there aren't windows-down singalong rock songs - "Trouble Comes Running" is as straightforward of a song as there is, and its a ton of fun. Overall, Transference is a welcome curveball and a fantastic album.
8. Local Natives - Gorilla Manor
The hype surrounding Local Natives' debut Gorilla Manor preceded it, but the record rose above the buzz and achieved something much, much bigger. Pounding rhythms + soaring harmonies, often-obtuse subject matter, a Talking Heads cover - the album seemed almost too audacious at times, yet it worked. The album captured wide-eyed wonder of youth better than any album in recent memory. The band took the songs to the road for nearly a year of constant touring - winning more converts with each stop. Seeing the band at a packed Great Scott and then, just a few months later, an overflowing stage at Sasquatch it's impossible to ignore the reach of Gorilla Manor. An amazing triumph for a young band from L.A. and hands-down best debut of 2010.
9. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
The biggest indie band in the world got a lot bigger in 2010 - debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart and collecting a Grammy nod for Rock Album Of The Year. So how did the Arcade Fire maintain their indie cred alongside such monumental mainstream success? They put out a brilliant record of varied, complex music that references disillusionment while never getting weighed down by it. They turned a two-night stand at Madison Square Garden into a worldwide event by asking Terry Gilliam to direct a live internet webcast. Their Spike Jonze-directed video for "The Suburbs" was another art-meets-accessibility success. As for the music, it's the most fun Arcade Fire album to-date, touching on genres from art-rock to disco and addressing serious themes in an often-playful way. Brilliant stuff.
10. The Morning Benders - Big Echo
"Excuses" exploded out of nowhere in early 2010 like a blinding ray of summer sun cutting through the cold winter. It is without question my song of the year - a huge pop song swathed in reverb, 60s R&B and big, dense Phil Spector-esque production. Oh, and the rest of Big Echo is damn good too. Operating somewhere between the layered creations of Grizzly Bear and the laid-back pop of Real Estate, The Morning Benders stepped-out in a huge way this year. I enjoyed the band's debut Talking Through Tin Cans, but it barely hints at the level of songwriting, arrangement and maturity that Big Echos. This was my feel good record of the year - it's impossible for me to listen to these 10 songs and not feel warm and fuzzy.
11. Blake Mills - Break Mirrors
I'll be honest - I hadn't heard of Blake Mills until earlier this year when a friend tipped me off to his music shortly before the release of Break Mirrors. I soon found that he had contributed to some of my favorite albums of the past few years, toured with Band Of Horses, Jenny Lewis and many more - oh, and he's only 23. You could see the fantastic Break Mirrors as a man stepping into the spotlight. Many sidemen and session musicians are relegated to the shadows for a reason - not so with Blake Mills. He demonstrates songwriting, musicianship and confidence far beyond his years. From catchy pop to understated folk, Break Mirrors is a varied, complex and just plain phenomenal album that hints at an exciting future for Blake Mills.